What you have to understand," one of the owners of a 3-year-old harness horse named Niatross was saying, "is that he may turn out to be the greatest colt that ever raced." What you also have to understand, of course, is that he may not; indeed, the odds being what they are, he probably won't. Still, a horseman without hopes in the spring is a horseman with no hopes at all. And in the case of the undefeated pacer Niatross—who is valued at a record $12 million—the hopes are sky high.
If they are realized, 100 years from now people who have no knowledge of standardbreds will know about Niatross (pronounced nigh-a-tross), much as people who are ignorant of thoroughbreds know about Man o' War. Mark him down. Niatross—"Nia" for Niagara Acres near Buffalo, where one of his owners, Mrs. Elsie Berger, 71, lives; "tross" for the third syllable of his famous father's name, Albatross.
In the 173-year history of standard-bred racing there have been only a few certified legends. One was the pacer Dan Patch in the early 1900s. Men smoked Dan Patch cigars, women washed clothes in Dan Patch washing machines and Dan traveled in his own private railroad car. He finally retired in 1909 after 10 undefeated seasons (he lost two heats but never a race) and nine world records. Another was the great gray trotter Greyhound, whose record of 1:55¼ for the mile, set in 1938, lasted 31 years. A third was the pacer Bret Hanover, who won a record 35 races in a row in 1964 and 1965. Niatross could be the fourth and foremost.
"I'm not overly high on Niatross," insists one of the owners, Lou Guida, of Trenton, N.J., "because I don't want to be overly disappointed. But I have to confess he has the potential to be a storybook horse."
Last year as a 2-year-old Niatross won 13 of 13 starts, a feat approaching Bret Hanover's 24 for 24 as a 2-year-old 16 years ago. Niatross won $604,900 in 1979, far more than any 2-year-old standardbred—or thoroughbred—ever did. A conservative guess as to what his winnings might come to this year is more than $1 million, which would surpass the record $826,542 won by Hot Hitter in 1979. Despite Hot Hitter's haul, Niatross was named horse of the year, an honor almost always reserved for older animals.
Niatross didn't just beat his opponents, he devastated them. In a sport in which photo finishes are commonplace, Niatross has never won by less than three-quarters of a length. Nor has he ever had a whip put to him by Clint Galbraith, who trains him, drives him and owns one-quarter of him—unless you count the time at Louisville Downs last year when Galbraith flicked him a couple of times on the saddle pad because "he was getting a little dozy."
In his most impressive race, the $862,750 Woodrow Wilson Memorial at The Meadowlands in August, Niatross defeated a classy field in a sizzling 1:55.4.
"If you were constructing a horse," says Robert Boni, a vice-president of New York's Pine Hollow Stud Farm, "there is very, very little that he has that you wouldn't use. He's sound, big, strong, with great breeding, manners, speed and gait. He has the license to be good." Veteran trainer-driver Billy Haughton told Guida, "Niatross is flawless." Yet, in this iffy, iffy business, disaster has a habit of lying just one step ahead. "Whatever happens, we will take it in stride," says Mrs. Berger, who has 25% of the horse.
The ownership of Niatross seems appropriate. Mrs. Berger, who describes herself as a "simple little woman," has been in the horse business for years—some successful, some not. Galbraith has been her trainer for 22 years. Two years ago she gave Galbraith half ownership in a pregnant mare named Niagara Dream. Thus, he also had half ownership of the resulting foal, who was Niatross. Over the years, they have shared in many horse deals, which can be a hodgepodge involving breeding rights, training fees, stakes payments, stud payments, board, general upkeep. Sometimes money changes hands, sometimes not.
"Why wouldn't I give away part of the horses?" says Mrs. Berger. "I knew Clint's father and now his family. We're all like family, and families take care of their own. Besides, I'm getting older. But in my mature years, this is exciting."